Boats, bikes and beaches

By Tim Plouff
For Points East
The weekend forecast for Midcoast Maine was splendid, again. My wife Kathy and I had already enjoyed three great boating weekends early in the summer, island-hopping with our close friends Nat and Diane Smith and Nat’s two sisters and families.

feature1506Visiting the fine sand beaches at Marshall Island, and then viewing the ongoing quarrying operations at Crotch Island in Stonington had been memorable trips for all. Yet my preference for the upcoming weekend leaned toward some different activity.

Kathy certainly enjoyed making our maritime excursions, especially with friends and to new destinations. However, she did not savor “repeats” – visits to islands or harbors already the logbook – as much as I did. There had to be a new reward, a new component, to the stop to make it worthy of the effort. She threw out hiking or biking as an endeavor to pursue, seeing as how we live 30 minutes from Acadia National Park and there are still places to explore there. Good point.

I countered with a brainstorm of such magnitude, I even impressed myself: Why not take the bikes on the boat, and we’ll go to Great Cranberry and Little Cranberry islands (see map on page 32), ride the roads, explore the beaches, and hike the nature trails? Her expression told me she thought this was a pretty good idea.

Before some other “brilliant” ideas could develop, I quickly went to the garage and lowered our bikes from their overhead storage, checked the tires and chains, and stowed the bikes in the stern of our Sea Ray 215. They both fit nicely behind the helm seat, nestled into the aft corner next to the engine cover.

Saturday dawned sunny and calm, just as the forecast promised. We did not get the early start we needed, as we were caught behind the Harbor House Flamingo Festival Parade, just finishing up in Southwest Harbor. Growing exponentially every year, this festival, the second Saturday in July, should mark Southwest as your destination if you like pink flamingos, lots of food options, and apparently a very good time. We instead headed for the launch ramp at Manset, across the harbor and near the Hinckley Yachts facility.

The previous week, my brother Jeffrey and I had traveled to Baker Island, the third of the five Cranberry Isles. The other two are Bear Island, right at the exit to Northeast Harbor, with the much larger Sutton Island lying between Bear and Little Cranberry, or, as the locals know it, Islesford. With no roads, Bear and Sutton are not casual-visitor friendly, while the other Cranberry Isles welcome visitors with open arms.

The day after that trip, we returned to Manset to relaunch my boat, so our Uncle Brian could take his wife Sandy, daughter Kim, son-in-law Tim, and two of his grandsons out to Baker Island to revisit memories past. Brian has been instrumental in all things boating for me; this would be the first time that anyone other than me would be piloting my boat without me aboard. It was a little strange watching them slow-motor out of the harbor.

Before launching, we had moved off the ramp to allow one of the working motor barges, the Neptune, space to approach, load, and return to ferrying vehicles, equipment and building supplies to the Cranberry Isles. Jeff Berzinis, owner of Southwest Marine Boat Services, and his daughter Nicole make a clever team. Jeff skillfully pilots the Neptune around the various ramps, offering instructions and witty comments from the pilothouse above deck, while Nicole calms anxious drivers, nervous about backing up the ramps and going for their first seafaring ride in their work truck.

Boom trucks laden with lumber, treated pilings, and even hay, join the FairPoint Communications repairman and crews from the local paving company with multiple dump truck loads of pavement. Jeff and Nicole scurry back and forth from Islesford and Great Cranberry several times a day, keeping the working islands working, during a very short summer season.

For our trip, the Manset launch is quiet, despite the festivities in Southwest Harbor. My work companion, Scott, had beaten us to sea today: His light-blue 30-foot C&C sailboat has slipped its mooring, and he was enjoying a nice five-knot breeze somewhere in the Eastern Way at the southern end of Mount Desert Island. It was halfway to the super-moon high tide, so we needn’t have worried about slipping the Sea Ray off the trailer.

With the bimini in place, the gear stowed and the inflatable attached, I pushed the boat trailer under the clear seawater. Kathy fired the engine and gave the thumbs-up to push back farther and let her float off the trailer – except she’s not floating away from the trailer, no matter how much deeper I slide down the ramp. With the truck’s exhaust pipe burbling away, it dawned on me that, in my haste to get organized, one crucial step has not been completed; I hadn’t released the trailer strap from the bow of the boat.

As we idled out of Southwest, the chartplotter was once again reluctant to lock onto the satellites. Stone-reliable for eight seasons, our Garmin was starting to have some momentary lapses in execution – something else to add to the fall list of boating repairs, replacements and parts.

Boat traffic is negligible, so we soak in the glorious day and slow-ride the two-mile crossing from Manset to Spurling Cove at the north end of Great Cranberry Island. The town dock offers space for temporary tie-ups, plus there are three free guest moorings at the outer edge of the field. Visitors need to be mindful of the three mailboat/ferryboat companies that visit this dock throughout the day and not block their access.

After a quick snack, the bikes on the dock, we head out to travel the island’s newly paved roads as well as the various dirt roads that finger off the main street running down this fish-hook-shaped island. Public restrooms are right off the dock, plus a small general store that is open seasonally. During the winter, roughly 40 to 50 hardy souls live on Great Cranberry Island; during the summer, the population swells to around 400. Most of the traffic we encounter is either on a bicycle, riding in the eight-passenger golf-cart shuttle (small donation), or driving an older car that has not been registered for years.

From Spurling Cove to Deadman Point, at the southeast end, it was approximately two and two-tenths miles, with gently rolling terrain and several interesting vantage points. We turned left onto Dog Point Road to look at the old shipyard. There was evidence of new construction, plus several sailboats are in various states of repair.

Looking into the oldest storage building, we saw evidence of decades of maritime life on the island: rusty tools, bent shafts, a wooden powerboat minus its engine, plus a wide assortment of sailing gear, both current and ancient. You could sense the strong hands and heavy banter of men not here today, but whose presence we felt in the discarded boats or the projects still in progress. An old wooden dock jutting into the protected cove abutted two rail-ramps. Several bait sheds were strung together along the wharf. It appeared that someone is living in one shed as flowers adorn the windows and a flag slowly flaps in the gentle breeze.

An elderly woman told us she was originally from Sweden, but now winters in the Bahamas and summers on Great Cranberry. Her hands were huge, but her fingers were bent and twisted as she gestured to her boat, tied to the float below us. She explained how her flowers all survived the blow of Hurricane Arthur, and we struggled with her thick accent. But she was undaunted as she reveled about her joyous island lifestyle, much to our envy.

Leaving the groomed dirt road, we continued to the end of the island. Unfortunately, the curved beach at the eastern point was private so we turned around and jumped off the bikes at the public trail on top of Bunker Head. Now overseen by Maine Coast Heritage Trust, this 19-acre park provides a half-mile woods trail to the southern shore of the island, where a granite-stone beach invited treasure hunting or the opportunity to listen to the waves crashing ashore, and soak in the serenity. Little Duck and Great Duck islands, plus Frenchboro, Long Island, were in the distance to the south. Only one sailboat dotted the blue horizon, while the drone of a lobsterman’s diesel engine ran to the east.

After soaking up the sun for a while, my stomach signaled it was time for lunch. We headed back to the town dock, exploring other roads along the way. Several more diversions led to quaint island cottages, small gardens, and the realization that most island residents do not even live near the shore. Our last unpaved trail led straight into the Newman & Gray Boatyard, the island’s largest working yard. The place was empty this Saturday, but some of the buildings were open, and I couldn’t stop myself from looking at more old boats and tools. The main balloon-framed barn was impressive for its apparent longevity, and it told small tales as I surveyed the walls and discarded boat parts. Again, a railway led to the harbor – more signs of heavy lifting and large vessels.

As we savored lunch aboard our boat, we are entertained by the day-trippers coming and going on two of the “mailboats” that deliver residents and visitors from Manset or Northeast Harbor. A couple in full bicycling regalia – Spandex, cleats and team jerseys – were sure to be disappointed by the brevity of the island’s roads. We hoped they’d frequently step off their bikes to soak in the history and laid-back pace of Great Cranberry.

We were the only boat still on the dock when we left Great Cranberry. However, after a short mile-and-a-half ride to Little Cranberry, we had to wait for space to tie-up at Islesford as the Islesford Dock Restaurant was enjoying a busy early afternoon crowd. A distinctive almond-colored Hinckley Picnic Boat was departing, and we slyly slipped into the space vacated by Martha Stewart’s party.

Islesford has a lot going on during the summer: the restaurant, a gallery, a pottery store, plus the Islesford Historical Museum, run by the National Park Service. The fisherman’s co-op was right next door, so this area was buzzing with activity, but at a decidedly slower pace. Again, golf carts and bicycles ruled the transportation spectrum, which was enhanced by many aging pickup trucks used by lobstermen.

We pointed our bikes down Maypole Road, then looped around to Gilley Beach, where the tide revealed a saltwater pool ideal for a summer afternoon’s wading. Kathy searched for sea glass and choice glacial remnants along the crescent stone beach.

To the east, Baker Island and its lighthouse were clearly visible; the former Coast Guard Lifesaving station (now a private residence) was positioned on the eastern end of Islesford. A shaped path led to Bar Point, where it is rumored that the Gilley mothers once crossed from Baker at low tide to deliver their babies with Islesford midwives. The rolling surf serves up hearty images of the ruggedness of those early island settlers.

Islesford is clustered with neat homes, fishermen’s dooryards filled with gear, and yards clustered with the dated remnants of days gone by. About half of the homes have small gardens plus piles of firewood, aging or waiting to be stacked. Self-reliance seems to be the byword for island folks.

After riding each of the island’s streets, taking in the character of the island and surveying, across the bay, the breathtaking views of Mount Desert Island and the Acadia mountains, we gathered at the dock and agreed that Islesford offered the visitor a colorful and varied selection of sights and activities. Yet each of the Cranberry Isles has its own character for the traveler to seek out.

After many years of searching for the hidden treasures of Acadia and greater Mount Desert Island, spending a perfect summer day on the outer Cranberry Isles – with boat and bicycles – only cemented our belief that there really is too much to see and do in a few visits to this region. Boating and bicycles is a good way to begin to scratch the surface.

Tim has been trailer-boating with a 2000 Sea Ray 215 Express Cruiser, inboard V-8 power, since 2005, after spending the previous two decades paddling Maine’s coast. He also writes the “On the Road Review” automotive column each week in “The Ellsworth American,” while his primary day job is as wholesale oil and Shell gasoline sales manager for Dead River Company.